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Center Staff Innovate to Engage Communities

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Laura Arranda
Laura Aranda, Steans Center Community Service Scholars Program Coordinator in front of public art by  PO Box Collective
Spring Quarter 2020 was like no other in the two-decade history of the Steans Center.  Practically overnight, Center staff were faced with addressing the question of how the university can take action to engage communities while educating students remotely. 

In the weeks since COVID-19 changed daily life, the Steans Center, Egan Office and the affiliated Asset-based Community Development (ABCD) Institute responded by adapting and developing new approaches to community engagement, both inside and outside DePaul. In doing so, staff transformed service learning pedagogy, support of Community Service Scholars, coordination of internships and community-based employment, and the delivery of trainings in community engagement.

“Staff were extremely creative in coming together to create new ways for delivering remote community engagement opportunities for students while maintaining connections to DePaul community partners” says Howard Rosing, Executive Director of the Steans Center. “This year more than ever we need to celebrate the talents and skills of our community engagement staff, as they quickly reorganized in response to the pandemic in support of students, faculty and community partners.

In the span of a couple of weeks, DePaul switched to remote teaching, learning and administrative support.  Community engagement was characterized more by Zoom meetings rather than direct face-to-face experiences, as DePaul partners struggled to stay open to respond to increasingly urgent challenges faced by the people they serve.

We’re fortunate to be at a mission-centered place where people care about doing it right.

In a typical year, the Steans Center supports about 4000 students in community engagement activities. During Spring 2020, the Center focused on supporting students and faculty in developing new ways to further DePaul's Vincentian mission through courses, internships and scholarships. “There are as many ways of approaching the challenge of service learning in these circumstances as there are people,” says Helen Damon-Moore, Associate Director for Community Engagement Leadership at the Steans Center. ‘We’re fortunate to be at a mission-centered place where people care about doing it right.”

Support for Community-Engaged Courses

OCE Live
In March 2020, it became apparent that service learning at DePaul would mean something very different in the age of COVID-19. “The vast majority of connections we rely on have not been feasible, since students can’t be in the community in the same way and we can’t meet face-to-face with community partners,” says Ruben Alvarez Silva, who has an undergraduate and graduate degree from DePaul and is the Associate Director for Academic Service Learning at the Steans Center. “We had to offer students a way to get content and pair that with actions they could take remotely.”

In about a week’s time, Alvarez Silva says, the Center’s academic service learning team built out 13 online modules and developed weekly events on key issues including immigration, food and housing security, and mental health, among other topics. Online Community Engagement (OCD) modules were designed with community-based service learning students in mind, and featured self-directed learning and videos. One component of the modules is a once-a-week online event that encourages dialogue on selected topics. In addition, students had the opportunity to follow up on these events and engage in a reflective online space once a week with Center graduate service learning coordinators.  Alvarez Silva stressed what he calls maintaining “the feedback loop of service learning” that connects students, faculty, and community partners.

David Pintor
David Pintor
David Pintor works with Alvarez Silva on the Academic Service Learning (ASL) Team as Student Engagement Program Manager. “The spring quarter started about a week after the quarantine,” he says. “So we really had very little time to create these modules. However, we’ve realized that we can use them well beyond the quarantine. These virtual workshops can remain relevant because they reach so many students, and we are also able to record and archive them.” One example, he says, is a module on homelessness. “There is a list of things students can watch or listen to – video clips, movies, podcasts. They can also  read articles, reports and studies.  It gives students another tool for experiential learning.”

In addition to OCE modules, some faculty chose to pursue remote service learning projects with community partners.  One example involved former Steans Center Community Service Scholar and DePaul alum Drew Edwards ('13) who conceived of a nonprofit organization while studying at DePaul. Since then, Edwards turned his concept into Pangea Educational  Development Group (PEDG). During Spring term, PEDG engaged DePaul students in a project that assisted youth in processing their experience during COVID-19. Edwards connected with his former DePaul professor Melinda Wright in the School of Public Service who now sits on the board of PEDG. Together they integrated the project into Wright's Introduction to Nonprofit Management course.  The project supported publishing of a book, The Unwelcome Stranger, to assist parents with explaining COVID-19. The book, which is also in audio, includes project-based learning activities that parents can complete with children while schools are closed.

Jonathan Handrup
Jonathan Handrup
Jonathan Handrup, a Program Coordinator on the ASL team with two DePaul masters (MS '15, MSW'20), works to pair academic courses with community organizations to enhance course and student learning. His job includes working with DePaul’s graduate nursing students and faculty. “Every quarter, I know that this program admits about 50 students who are looking for placements with organizations that are relevant in terms of community health. This year, because of COVID, our challenge was to see if we could locate enough partners to sustain the graduate nursing cohort. And we did!” Handrup said it happened because of an online Zoom placement fair in which organizations pitched what they do to students who were looking for a placement. “This fair saved everyone a whole day – and gave students an opportunity to have a conversation with organizations they could be placed in for two years.”

Kaliah Liggons (MPA '18), Community Development Program Manager on the ASL team, reflects on how Steans responded to the current challenge. “We were very conscious of the current climate and knew there would not be direct interaction between students and partners,” she says. “We only had a week in between winter and spring quarter – there was little time to transition. This time there was no blueprint – but we found a way to engage with community partners. We really learned how to be adaptable.”

Kaliah Liggons
Kaliah Liggons
Liggons typically works with 8 to 11 DePaul courses per quarter, each having 25 to 30 students that she connects with three to six community partners. She typically meets with representatives of community partner sites to explore opportunities for how service learning students will support them. “In this case, we could not do that in the same way,” she says. “We had to find other options.” Online community engagement on specific topics along with opportunities for project-based service learning, she says, proved to be valuable tools for reaching community partners while providing a mission-oriented faculty resource for educating students

"The creativity of the staff during this time was unprecedented," Rosing says.  "They truly stepped up and found ways to meet the challenges of communities, faculty and students." Rosing himself taught GEO 351 Geography, Food and Justice, which typically engages students in activist learning with food justice campaigns. During this Spring, students in the course campaigned to promote sick leave for restaurant and food service workers, advocated for farmworkers risking their lives to harvest food, and researched ways to assist small Chicago food businesses and nonprofits impacted by the pandemic. "I really watched as students took the lead and pushed through a difficult term while still practicing the mission," Rosing says.

Supporting Student Leadership

Promoting student leadership is the central focus of Community Engagement Leadership (CEL), a team of staff that support internships and scholarships. For example, the Community Service Scholars program typically supports 70-80 students working 30 hours per quarter with community partners across Chicago. Their work was quickly disrupted by COVID-19 says Laura Aranda, Community Service Scholars Program Coordinator.  She notes “students didn’t know whether they will be on campus in the fall, or what the world will look like.  We work with students as they try to navigate next steps.”  For some Community Service Scholars, Aranda explained, service continued just shifted to remote activities. One student, Aranda describes, served as an online volunteer teacher at a community mosque where she created curriculum and activities for kids.  Another did data entry for a volunteer group of doulas.  During Spring term, CEL held weekly reflection sessions giving scholars the opportunity to share their service experiences with other students and discuss ways of coping in general.

We work with students as they try to navigate next steps.

“We just wanted to be able to give students time and space to talk to each other and see that they aren’t alone,” adds Angelica Chestleigh (MA, '16)  Assistant Director for Internships and Scholarships in CEL.  In addition to overseeing the Community Service Scholarship program with Aranda, Chestleigh develops opportunities for student leadership through the Community Partners Internship, the McCormick Community Internship, and a variety of other internship and scholarship programs.  Similarly to service learning, Chestleigh explains how she and her students adapted. One intern, for example, worked with Telpochcalli Education Project, a longtime Steans Center partner, to create a spreadsheet that the organization’s volunteers could use when dropping off baby formula, food, and other supplies to neighborhood residents.

Angelica Chestleigh
Angelica Chestleigh
Chestleigh adds, “a lot of the nonprofits we worked with were overwhelmed with needs from their communities, and everyone is under stress now.  At the same time, we always remember that when we work with communities, we focus on mutually beneficial relationships. I keep reminding myself that ‘It’s Okay,' we will eventually get through this and it’s okay to lean on other people." Furthermore, she acknowledges, "we definitely can continue this work and learn from what we’ve done.  That’s the silver lining – we’ve become more engaged with students.”

Meanwhile, with guidance from Associate Director Helen Damon-Moore, CEL and other Center staff spent Spring rethinking the Center's longstanding annual Service Speaks Conference that highlights the work of students, community partners, and faculty in their efforts to advance DePaul's mission.  This year, Damon-Moore explains, Service Speaks will feature an online collection of student community engagement presentations that highlight student leadership in community engagement through stories of both challenges and successes.

More Intentional Community Partnerships

Creating leadership opportunities for DePaul students is central to the work of the Egan Office for Urban Education and Community Partnerships. Egan Office Director, John Zeigler, reflects on how the Center responded to COVID-19.  “There’s a resiliency and an acceptance to adapting to this new norm,” he says. “That’s what’s emerging now.”

To further explain, Zeigler shared a unique example of a partnership with the Stein Learning Garden at St. Sabina in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood of Chicago. “We are involved in getting sunflower seeds to parents that they can plant in front their homes. It’s symbolic of new life and connectivity and the spirit. Our larger idea is that we are thinking about different cultures in communities, and working with parents and school principals on how to bring in service learning.” Other Egan school projects engaged DePaul graduate and undergraduate students in neighborhood asset-mapping and retooling a manual for working virtually with schools and parents.

Monica Ramos
Dr. Monica Ramos
Dr. Monica Ramos, Assistant Director at the Egan Office, oversees school internship programs in public and Catholic schools.  She reinforces the importance of community strengths as a pillar of the Center’s work – before and since COVID-19. Ramos works with DePaul graduate students who serve as community organizers, bringing resources to schools, and undergraduates, who work as tutors and learn how to collaborate to build resources to improve upon the existing work of schools and parents.

“We come from the mindset of assets – our graduate students identify the assets in the community and connect those assets to schools," says Ramos. “Meanwhile, principals have been accessible, open and flexible – and they definitely see us as an asset to the continuous learning of the kids and engagement with families.” Ramos says that the team at the Egan Office, along with several professors, came together during the pandemic to “learn about topics and dig a little deeper. We had a conversation about gentrification and how it’s even happening during COVID-19. We asked how communities can be informed about grant relief, about their rights, how people can pay for their rent, the well-being of kids, and other issues.”

We are trying to figure out ways to be creative, while also understanding that these schools and communities are dealing with a crisis as well.

Additionally, Egan Office students put together a packet of e-learning resources for families and caregivers as well as information about COVID-19 in different languages.  Sol Logsdon, Program Coordinator for Egan's Schools Team suggests that changes happening now in the school partnership programs can have a positive impact down the road. “I think schools will be more open to e-learning,” she says. “We are trying to figure out ways to be creative, while also understanding that these schools and communities are dealing with a crisis as well.” She says, “we continue to meet online with our tutors. And our tutors have been in touch with teachers in the schools, helping with e-learning. Some of our students have also created materials for students and parents.”

Creating resources for schools has always been the goal of tutors from the Egan Office's early education partnerships division, funded by JumpStart Inc since 2004.  DePaul JumpStart Corps members make personal connections to children and teachers at preschools. Students are trained in JumpStart's curriculum and spend 300 hours a year in the program. About 40 students in seven teams typically go to five preschool centers around the city. That changed with COVID-19.

Jeanette Estrada
Jeanette Estrada
“Teachers asked if we could make a video just to say hi to the children,” says Jeanette Estrada, DePaul Site Manager for the JumpStart Program who began in the program as a DePaul student. “One student also made an online video tutorial for teachers who were getting acclimated to online learning. We also reached out to teachers and gave them concrete ways we could help them with reading and literacy." The key, Estrada says, was for students and the program to be proactive, flexible, creative, and maintain personal relations with teachers and schools.

Supporting Those Who Served

Creativity and proactivity are implicit in the Egan Office's innovative approach to community engagement. This approach, the Egan Way, is exemplified by Egan's Multi-Faith Veterans Initiative (MVI). Funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation since 2014, MVI has worked citywide and now in nearby Waukegan to integrate mental and behavioral health with faith institutions, linking veterans and families to local services and resources in their communities. The community-based program has grown to include nine sites in 18 communities.

Walidah Bennett
Walidah Bennett
Walidah Bennett, MVI founder and Director, explains how they immediately pivoted to bi-weekly Zoom conference calls where partners in the veteran services community talked about what they see on the ground, how they are engaging with veterans and families, and their primary challenges. “Early on, we found out that partners didn’t have enough masks and gloves,” Bennett says. “We asked, ‘How can we connect partners with other wraparound or rapid response services that source some of the equipment they need?”

A primary goal of MVI is to provide partners within the veteran community with information about resources. To this end, in the midst of the pandemic, Bennett launched a Women’s Project, starting with a series of Zoom meetings focusing on the rising population of female veterans. “We decided to figure out what’s going on with female vets – and bring together service providers, policymakers, and others to hear about housing, employment, health care and other issues affecting this group. We’re trying to understand what are the differences between male and female transition issues. We know that a lot of it is related to military sexual trauma.”

We are asking, ‘How can the university be more intentional as partners than before?'

Finding ways to connect community partners to resources, knowledge, and ultimately power is central to the work of Egan Office, named in honor of the late priest and activist Monsignor John "Jack" Egan. To this end, at the outset of the pandemic, Zeigler co-hosted a global conversation in collaboration with the Goldin Institute, a Chicago-based organization that connects grassroots leaders globally. Zeigler, Rosing and other staff sensed the need to quickly highlight exemplary models of community organizing in response to COVID-19. In turn, they organized an international conversation between organizers in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago and a Bedouin community in the Negev. Then, along with Ramos, they hosted another conversation with a renowned scholar of health in Mexico. “It was powerful,” Zeigler says. “The content was not so much looking at what’s wrong, but what is working – what are the blessings and gifts in what we do on a local level. And how do you ‘glocalize’ these conversations?" Zeigler says that the question keeps coming up about how people at the Steans Center and Egan Office are responding to COVID-19. “We are asking, ‘How can the university be more intentional as partners than before?’

Tracking Community Engagement

DePaul Collaboratory
A primary challenge of community-engaged institutions like DePaul is documenting and telling their stories. This challenge is the focus of Barbara Smith, Steans Center Associate Director for Compliance and Partnership Management. Smith administers the Collaboratory, a software-based project that DePaul, along with numerous universities across the country, employs to track community engagement and public service

“We ask a series of questions and collect data to be able to get a broad view of how DePaul is engaging and if we are living our mission – which is about community engagement,” says Smith. Faculty, staff and community partners utilize Collaboratory to piece together engagement activities that bring DePaul's mission alive. One of the challenges related to COVID-19, Smith says, is continuing to gather information.

We want to get your story and are available to connect with you

“Face-to-face contact is always good, but Zoom is also becoming a very effective way to keep our work in Collaboratory moving forward with faculty and staff. We’ve found that once people are familiar with the Collaboratory, they get more comfortable with it.” Sometimes it’s also about reaching out in a direct and personal way. Smith explains, “I tell faculty that ‘I see you’re teaching a course and that we’re tracking our community engagement activity.' We want to get your story and are available to connect with you.” Community engagement doesn’t stop because there’s a pandemic, she adds. "It’s so valuable now to tell our stories, and that’s what this is about.”   

Linda Bendixen
Linda Bendixen
Linda Bendixen, the Steans Center's Department Assistant who supports a range of operational and financial responsibilities, is also behind-the-scenes working to support Collaboratory.  Bendixen ('95), who earned her MBA at DePaul, started at the Steans Center in January.  She recalls that when the Center first responded to the pandemic, “I never heard a question about ‘if’  – just a question of 'how’ the Center would respond.” Rosing notes that Bendixen plays a critical role by keeping staff connected to the rest of the university. Furthermore, he notes, "we have seen how untapped talents and skills of staff like Bendixen, who has a rich career in communications, have proved incredibly important in a remote working context."

Innovative Community Engagement through an Assets Framework

Tapping skills and talents of individuals in communities is at the core of the Steans Center's engagement approach, developed through partnership with the nonprofit Asset-based Community Development (ABCD) Institute. Housed within the Center since 2016, the ABCD Institute replaced in-person trainings with remote trainings during  the Spring which brought people together from across the country.

“We have found that technology is good enough so we can do so much more than we could have done a year ago,” says Kim Hopes, Assistant Director for ABCD Partnerships at the Steans Center. “For one training, the first day people weren’t talking all that much – maybe they felt funny about it. But the second day people spoke up right away and offered stories about their work.” It helped, Hope adds, to add virtual breakout rooms to training – and have a trainer go from “room to room” to facilitate conversations and keep them on topic.

In addition, the ABCD Institute introduced a newsletter that shares responses to the pandemic. The publication features news and stories that reflect on an asset-based approach to community development in the U.S. and across the world. Capping off the Spring , along with the Steans Center, the Institute collaborated with groups across the world to co-host a 48-hour (un)conference, Co-Creating our Future Stories of Hope and Action: A "Glocal" Assets and Strengths-based (Un)Conference, including 39 contiguous sessions across 22 countries.

"The tools of ABCD directly contributed to the innovative ways staff responded to COVID-19 during Spring 2020," Rosing confirms. The Stean Center, Egan Office and the ABCD Institute took action by identifying untapped internal and external assets to craft experiences for students and teaching opportunities for faculty that in turn benefited communities. These reciprocal and creative forms of community engagement started with the question"how can the Center respond?," to paraphrase Bendixen, and are thus a direct response to a deeper DePaul question: "What must be Done?"